Robert Whitley, Viroflay Cemetery, France

The MRES occasionally used the British Press to help solve a missing case, a method which their commander Hawkins refers to as ‘novel’ in his post-war report on MRES operations. He cites one particular case where the Press were invaluable, albeit producing a great many useless answers before the correct one.

The only clue in this particular enquiry was a small case, handed in by a Frenchman who had found it near a crashed aircraft. The case contained two photographs of an attractive girl, one of which showed her in nurse’s uniform, and a card on which was written an affectionate message from ‘Barb’ to ‘Bob’. This information was given to the newspapers, and on 18 September 1945 the London Press ran the story. As Hawkins writes:

The response was extraordinary; telephone calls, telegrams and letters poured in. Barbara was recognised from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and many points between. She was a W.A.A.F., a W.R.E.N., a dentist, a nurse […] Barbara was also a very bad girl, at present in a Remand Home, and the wife of a baronet […]. Two letters, apparently from lunatics, had a certain entertainment value, but did not add to the sum of our knowledge. One contained complimentary references to Lord Dawson of Penn, and stated that the writer had hurt his hand, but was better now.

One writer enclosed a photograph of a girl he did not know, but which he stated ‘had fallen out of a library book in Hammersmith’, thus presenting us with a second unknown. Another writer enclosed the picture of a lady described as ‘the pin-up girl of the 14th Army’. The lady, who was in native attire, was attractive but was not Barbara.*

However, in amongst this extraordinary collection, were three letters from members of the Royal Canadian Air Force who identified Barbara as Miss Barbara Johnston, a nurse from Windsor, Ontario. It was thus that the body of her fiancé was finally identified as being that of Flight Sergeant Robert Whitley, RCAF, of 419 Squadron, who had died on the night of 29/30 May 1942.

Canadian Virtual War Memorial, Robert Whitley file

Robert was a gunner, flying with a Wellington crew, piloted by Pilot Officer Cavaghan. Cavaghan and two other crew members were also from the RCAF. The aircraft crashed at Argenteuil in France, killing all five of the crew. They are buried at Viroflay New Communal Cemetery at Yvelines in France.

* TNA, AIR 55/65, Air Ministry, Group Captain E F Hawkins, ‘Report on Royal Air Force and Dominions Air Forces Missing Research and Enquiry Service 1944 – 1949’, pp.136-137.